A small group of desert locusts has entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), marking the first time the voracious insects have been seen in the African nation since 1944, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Tuesday, as UN agencies warned of a “major hunger threat” from the flying pests.
Kenya, Somalia and Uganda have been battling the swarms in the worst locust outbreak that parts of east Africa have seen in 70 years.
The UN said swarms have also been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea and Tanzania, and they have reached South Sudan, a nation where about half the population already faces hunger after years of civil war.
A joint statement on Tuesday by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu (曲東玉) and World Food Programme (WFP) executive director David Beasley called the swarms of locusts “a scourge of biblical proportions,” and “a graphic and shocking reminder of this region’s vulnerability.”
The FAO said that mature locusts, carried in part by the wind, arrived on the western shore of Lake Albert in eastern DR Congo on Friday last week near the town of Bunia.
The nation has not seen locusts for 75 years, it said.
“Needless to say the potential impact of locusts on a country still grappling with complex conflict, Ebola and measles outbreaks, high levels of displacement, and chronic food insecurity would be devastating,” the UN officials said in the statement.
Locust swarms can reach the size of major cities, and can destroy farners’ crops and devastate pasture for animals.
Experts have warned that the outbreak is affecting millions of vulnerable people across the region.
The UN has raised its aid appeal from US$76 million to US$138 million, saying the need for more help is urgent.
“This funding will ensure that activities to control the locusts can take place before new swarms emerge,” the statement said, adding that, to date, only US$33 million had been received or committed.
Experts have warned that the number of locusts if unchecked could grow 500 times by June, when drier weather is expected in the region.
“WFP has estimated the cost of responding to the impact of locusts on food security alone to be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now,” the statement said.
A changing climate has contributed to the outbreak as a warming Indian Ocean means more powerful tropical cyclones hitting the region.
A cyclone late last year in Somalia brought heavy rains that fed fresh vegetation to fuel the locusts that were carried in by winds from the Arabian Peninsula.
Desert locusts have a reproduction cycle of three months, the statement said, and mature swarms are laying eggs in vast areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, “many of which are already hatching.”
“In just a few weeks, the next generation of the pests will transition from their juvenile stage and take wing in a renewed frenzy of destructive swarm activity,” the statement said.
That could devastate east Africa’s most important crop of the year, it said.
“But that doesn’t have to happen. The window of opportunity is still open. The time to act is now,” the statement said.
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